For the first 15 years of my life, my mother had no voice. Then, when she was 44, my father had a heart attack and died in one minute.
She was lost and broke. She had worked mornings as a receptionist at a beauty salon, and left for her second job around noon, as secretary for a cardiologist. Then she would take two buses to get to my father’s carpet store, which was in a poor neighborhood, where she would organize his books, sweep his floors, and listen to the poetry he had written all day instead of selling any rugs. She did not get home until 9:30 at night. She was exhausted and hungry; I never once heard the woman complain.
She was born in Germany, and came over to this country when she was 11. For her parents, who spoke only Yiddish, she was the intermediary between the New World and the old. She must have had great English teachers, because I not only remember her never having an accent, but constantly correcting me in my language. “Not if I was,” she’d say, “if I were,” and she’d repeat, “If I were king, I wouldn’t be queen,” until my subjunctive took hold.
What I remember about those early years was that my parents would dance in the kitchen while my father sang to her, and as my sister and I were falling asleep, we could hear them laughing. But we could also hear the arguments over the gas bill, and their ritual Saturday night bridge game with cousins. “Did you see I had put down two clubs? I don’t think you were counting, Honey,” my mother would say in her meek little tone. She was so unsure of herself that most of her declarative statements ended with a question mark.
After he died, I signed her up for typing and shorthand classes, and she landed a fabulous job where she thrived, as the personal assistant to the head of orthopedic surgery at a prestigious children’s hospital. After a few years, she started telling my father’s jokes, and before long she was filled with confidence and opinions.
When I got married, my husband Joel and I included her in everything we did. They adored each other. She came with us on all our nuclear freeze marches, and every year when we went to Bermuda, there she was, fearless, on the back of a Vespa, arms clutching Joel’s waist, screaming at the top of her lungs, “What am I doing on the back of a biiiike!”
I have a series of pictures I took with a telephoto lens while the two of them sat on a log, heads touching, serious one minute, laughing the next. My mother said, for the first time ever, someone asked her what it was like as a kid coming to a new country, not knowing anything, and having immigrant parents. And what were they were laughing about? Joel was doing an imitation of the rabbi at his bar mitzvah.
When the women’s movement was in its infancy, my sister, my mother, and I joined a consciousness-raising group. She was the oldest one there, and I got to see her bloom in her newfound wisdom, and watch as women from all walks of life hung on to her every word. She talked about gossip, and how it undermined women’s solidarity and friendships. She talked about not judging people. “If you don’t want to be judged yourself,” she said, “keep your mouth shut and your heart open, because you don’t know anyone’s backstory.”
As a gramma, she was a gift to me. She adored my kids, and once she retired, she was on call and never said no. The boys slept at her studio apartment often, where they kept their Matchbox cars lining the periphery of her entire living room. She learned to do my son Dan’s insulin shot, even though she was terrified.
When Dan was sick and we knew we had to buy him a house near us, my mother seemed as if she were declining as well; we invited her to move to Vineyard Haven with Dan.
They would sit in their twin wheelchairs, watching “The Simpsons” laughing in unison, playing Scrabble and devouring meals made by her grandson, Josh, the chef, as she proudly called him.
When she was 87, she tripped over Dan’s cat and broke her pelvis. She needed help getting around, and was aging fast. We applied for a bed at the Hebrew Home in West Hartford, and after being on a waiting list, she finally was admitted.
She was a bit like the cat who had nine lives, because at the home she rallied. She took art classes, and found that she had a real gift. I remember saying to her after seeing her painting of Prince (that is correct; my mother made a painting of Prince!), “Mom, if you had been born in my era, you would have gone to art school.” She once again didn’t complain about her fate.
She started teaching bridge classes. She would tool around in her motorized scooter, bringing that positive energy to every nook and cranny on the second floor. The nurses all loved her, but at 92 she announced she would not turn 93. I’m in too much pain, she said. I’m done. I’ve had a great life. And she curled up and went to sleep. I sat and watched her. Two days before she died, I whispered in her ear, sobbing, “Mom, you have been the most amazing mother.” Her eyes fluttered open, and she said, “No, you have been the most amazing mother.”
If I had any doubts, it was clear my mother knew I had mothered her when she was in her most vulnerable state.
But most importantly, she had found and used her one-of-a-kind, beautiful, and powerful voice.